Congratulations to the students and other community supporters who make up the #USMFuture movement. Despite the fact that USM President Theodora Kalikow suggests otherwise, it is evident that their agitation, along with the efforts of the Faculty Senate, resulted in the reversal of faculty “retrenchment” (the corporate euphemism that institutions use when they don’t want to acknowledge that they are laying people off).
While it is hard to judge the longevity of said reversal—as associate professor of musicology Paul Christiansen told the Press Herald, “At this point nothing surprises me”—I see this as a victory on several levels.
Along with Prof. Dusan Bjelic, I taught a class on the history of American activism in 2010. While I recalled a rich history of top-down style campus activism when I attended USM throughout the middle of the Aughts, students in our class regularly claimed that a lack of campus-centric life at the University made organization difficult. Around that time I attended a protest against an earlier series of cuts. Students put together signs, chanted, and held rallies. However, at one point Prof. Eileen Eagan asked the crowd if anyone could name a member of the Board of Trustees and nobody could. The seeds for this movement had been planted, but had not yet taken root.
A number of things have happened in the short handful of years since then, particularly a greater, prolonged movement toward austerity on the part of federal and state governments as well as the institutions dependent on them. This has created austerity exhaustion and skepticism and most notably the decentralized #occupy movement in response. #occupy very clearly made its mark on the #USMFuture movement as evidenced by similar styles, organization, language, demands and aesthetic. The students have done their homework, it seems, and it appears that they have figured out how to conduct and where to direct their action.
I remain saddened that a number of staff cuts that remain on the table, as well as the wider move to close programs at Lewiston Auburn college. There is still a great amount of work to be done, particularly around “fixing state funding for public universities,” as student organizer Marpheen Chann-Berry suggested to the Press Herald. That said, this is very much the beginning of a student, faculty and staff movement that is refreshing to see. I agree with Prof. Mark Lapping’s response to the student involvement in the Press Herald:
“I think what happened today was the result of pressure from students, the letter (from the union) and lots of faculty discontent,” said Mark Lapping, a professor at the Muskie School of Public Policy and a former USM provost.
“I think this could be a new beginning,” Lapping said of the faculty and administration working together. “It’s got to become ‘our’ dilemma, not ‘their’ dilemma. … We’ve got to collectively solve these problems in a transparent and non-coercive environment.”
Finally, I am satisfied with this movement and its victories in the context of “austerity” de-mystification. The best case scenario for the system at large and President Kalikow was one in which cuts were presented, they went reported though largely unquestioned in the press, and the University moved on. Instead, thanks to multi-layered and multifaceted agitation the cuts were questioned and scrutinized in the press for weeks and the details of them were parsed out in public. The mathematics substantiating these particular cuts were questioned. The rationale for severing the very faculty members who are newer and tend to be younger and more diverse and—as such—the most “metropolitan” was questioned. The meaning of the concept “metropolitan university” — which should be scrapped immediately, by the way — was seen for being shallow, smoke-screen bullshit.
As such, again, the mystifying language and logic of severance in the name of austerity was presented and expected to be accepted and digested blindly, but #USMFuture did not allow that to happen. The math was challenged, the corporate rhetoric questioned, and the fight was brought to the public, creating serious questions about the logic offered by the institution and why this crisis exists in the first place.
There is a lot of work yet to be done, but I am heartened by what I have seen so far.
PHOTO CREDIT: Sokvonny Chhouk